Theories of obedience; Agency Theory Milgram (1974)

Learning Objectives: learning-obs-for-agency-theory-d-and-e1

Describing the theory

Milgram used the term ‘agentic state’ to explain the high levels of obedience in his famous experiments where 65% of Pps  followed orders to administer electric shocks to another supposed participant up to 450 V.

Milgram explained that people make the agentic shift when confronted with a person they perceive as having legitimate authority and begin to act as an ‘agent’, on behalf of the authority figure.

He goes onto say that when people in the agentic state believe that the authority figure is responsible for their actions; this is known as diffusion of responsibility.

He says that when not in the presence of an authority figure people are in the autonomous state, they behave independently and feel responsible for the consequences of their behaviour, making decisions according to their own freewill.

Milgram says that because people will often commits acts of destructive obedience when in the agentic state, (i.e. harming another person – an act they would not normally do), they may experience moral strain and shows signs of psychological and physical anxiety as their behaviour conflicts with their beliefs about right and wrong.

Milgram says the agentic shift is reinforced in early childhood, when parents reward children for obedience and punish  them for defiance; this is part of the socialisation process, which continues further when children learn to obey teachers at school.

He also explained that obedience can be seen as having survival value and that natural selection favoured those creatures who fitted into the social hierarchy and avoided confrontation. He explains that the state evolved as a way of maintaining social harmony – sticking to the rules is important for the good of the group.

This PowerPoint gives a detailed review of all aspects of the theory: agency-theory-pp


Evaluating the theory

Evaluate is an AO3 command term and therefore in the exam, these sort of questions will be band marked.

Evaluation can take a variety of forms; you should aim to cover a balance of strengths and weaknesses of agency theory based on….

  • research evidence  (focus on findings with accurate data)
  • real world events that either can or cn;t be adequately explained with this theory
  • comparisons between agency theory and another explanation of obedience, e.g. Authoritarian Personality Theory where you explain how/why agency theory is either a better or worse theory.
  • your essay must include evidence of well-developed chains of reason, competing arguments and a conclusion

Using Research Evidence as evaluation: creating-evaluation-from-evidence-agency-theory

Two activities to get you thinking about how to evaluate this theory.



What ifs…

  • What if the researcher, Mr Williams, was a five year old child?

Applications to real life situations

  1. Rwandan Genocide 2004
  • Cyasa Habimana; one of the perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide “I was the tool of more powerful men”
  • Paul who saved 100 Moderate Hutus and Tutsis in his hotel defying orders from the Interhamwe officials

2. MacDonalds Strip Search Scam

3. South African Murder trial: Click to read the article; how do you feel about psychological research being used to affect the outcome of trials such as this? What are the pros and cons of presenting scientific evidence to judges/juries?

4. Lynndie England and Chip Frederick in Abu Graib

6. The Jonestown massacre: hard to explain using agency theory as Jim Jones did not really have any legitimate authority however he did have some other other bases of power from Social power theory, e.g. Charisma /referent power; this is good application to include as it is hard to explain and therefore provides a competing argument.

This link takes you to other useful information:

This worksheet demonstrates howto use real lfie examples effectively in your writing: using-applications-to-real-life-to-evaluate-a-theory

Alternative Theories for Evaluation

Some model answers: 


starsWider reading:

Caspar (2016) used brain imaging to support that something different is happening in our brain when we are being coerced to do something rather than doing it voluntarily – this study seems to provide long awaited objective evidence of the difference between the agentic and autonomous state! Exciting stuff!

The following four statements about the Agency Theory are either true or false.

  1. The autonomous state is when individuals decide what to do for themselves
  2. Individuals are socialised to obey legitimate authority figures
  3. Moral strain occurs when an individual is happy to obey an authority figure
  4. Agency Theory was proposed by Hofling et al


  1. Define the concept of ‘agentic state’ as part of agency theory (2)
  2. Define the concept of ‘autonomous state’ as a part of agency theory (2)
  3. Explain the difference between the agentic state and the autonomous state in Milgram’s (1974) Agency Theory of Obedience. (3)
  4. Describe agency theory (5)
  5. A man knocks on Mrs Manner’s front door saying he is from the water board and that he must come in and check the drains in her back garden. He shows her some ID and she shows him in. Using agency theory, explain why Mrs Manners obeys his requests and let’s him in without thinking twice (4)
  6. Explain how agency theory can be used to explain one real life application (3)
  7. Evaluate Milgram’s (1974) Agency Theory of Obedience. You must include at least one way in which the theory can be applied to real life. (8)
  8. Evaluate the Agency Theory of obedience, using evidence from psychological research. (8)
  9. From the Edexcel SAMS:

Tom is busy with his schoolwork and revision. He is told by his teacher, Mrs Smith, to make sure he turns up to lessons early so that he can run errands for her. Mrs Smith orders Tom to do her photocopying and help prepare the classroom for her lessons. Using agency theory, explain why Tom might have obeyed Mrs Smith’s orders even though he was busy. (4)

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and pupils of psychology . Any unauthorised copying or posting of material from this site is a copyright infringement and could result in legal action being taken against you.

© Amanda J Wood, 2016-2017